In the spotlight: Dr. Coleen Cunningham

Dr. Coleen Cunningham’s family has long joked that she knew she wanted to be a pediatrician before she was born. By eighth grade, she was certain that she’d work in pediatrics – and she never looked back.

“Kids are just wonderful,” she says. “They’re always a pleasure to be around – how could you ever not want to help a child?”

Today, she serves as both senior vice president and pediatrician-in-chief at CHOC and chair for the UCI Department of Pediatrics. In this unique dual role, which she began in March, Dr. Cunningham acts as a senior clinical leader with oversight responsibility for CHOC’s vast pediatric medical and surgical services, academic advancement, research and teaching programs.

Dr. Coleen Cunningham, senior vice president and pediatrician-in-chief at CHOC and chair for the UCI Department of Pediatrics

“The big job here is integrating our two institutions, CHOC and UCI, and learning how we can align better,” says Dr. Cunningham.

In this role, she explains, she works as a liaison between physicians and administration, which allows her to communicate the patient care needs from the standpoint of a physician to administration, and vice versa. She will also be overseeing the medical education components, so that both entities can ensure they are recruiting and providing the best trainees, residents and fellows.

“As an insider at both CHOC and UCI, I understand what the issues are, but I’m also able to speak for both teams,” she says. “I can take a step back and advocate for the group as a whole. This is a new perspective, but it affords each institution the room to adjust and align.”

Most recently, Dr. Cunningham served as professor with tenure at Duke University in the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases and as chief of Global Health and vice chair for research in the Department of Pediatrics. She held secondary appointments in the Department of Pathology at Duke and the Duke Global Health Institute.

She earned her medical degree from the State University of New York Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, NY, where she also did her residency in pediatrics and a fellowship in pediatric infectious diseases. At SUNY, she served as an associate professor of pediatrics and started a pediatric HIV clinic.

Her work on HIV and AIDS in children has been recognized numerous times and is one of the stand-out moments of her career.

“When I started my job, I was telling mothers that their baby had HIV,” she says. “I would be crying alongside them, because at the time, there wasn’t much we could do. Today, when babies are diagnosed, they can be effectively treated – they can live to be 60 or 70, and we get to tell their parents that they’re going to lead a normal life. Seeing that evolve over the course of my career has been very rewarding.”

Dr. Cunningham has published more than 140 manuscripts and led many multicenter clinical trials aimed at the treatment and prevention of HIV infection in children. The progress that has been made in treating HIV, she says, reinforces the importance of integrating clinical care and research.

“Driving the best care for tomorrow requires integrating research and data analysis into our patient care environment, saying ‘Can I improve? Can I do it better?’” says Dr. Cunningham.

Her goal at CHOC, she says, is making research visible.

“CHOC already provides exceptional, top-notch medical care to children,” says Dr. Cunningham. “And if people heard about some of the incredible things we’re doing here, they’d be amazed. We want to lead the nation in care, but we also need to make that care more visible and teach others how to follow suit.”

Her drive to teach extends beyond her role with CHOC and has long been one of her passions. A few years ago, she was recognized as a top mentor by Duke, and she continues to actively mentor several junior faculty at the university.

“I love watching my mentees come into their own, fly and go beyond what I can do – it’s like having more kids,” says the mother of five. “I get excited to watch them grow and move their career in the direction they want it to go.”

Dr. Cunningham’s ultimate goals at CHOC are to fully and successful integrate the health system and UCI; develop the physicians, including the physician-scientists at both institutions; and enhance CHOC’s national reputation.

Once she has accomplished that, she says, she has only two things she wants to focus on: her garden and her grandchildren.

CHOC welcomes Dr. Coleen Cunningham

CHOC is thrilled to welcome Dr. Coleen Cunningham, whose appointment as senior vice president and pediatrician-in-chief begins today.

Following a national search, the University of California, Irvine School of Medicine and CHOC Children’s jointly announced in October 2020 that Dr. Cunningham, a renowned professor of pediatrics and pathology from Duke University, had accepted a dual appointment position as both the chair for the UCI Department of Pediatrics and as senior vice president and pediatrician-in-chief for CHOC. 

In this unique, dual role, Dr. Cunningham is responsible for leading UCI’s Department of Pediatrics and its 16 divisions that span the spectrum of diseases and disorders.  She is charged with bringing real-world academics, scientists and clinicians together to collaborate and uncover new knowledge through research, and effectively apply that knowledge to advance children’s health.

Dr. Coleen Cunningham

As CHOC’s senior vice president and pediatrician-in-chief (PIC), Dr. Cunningham serves as a senior clinical leader with oversight responsibility for the healthcare system’s vast pediatric medical and surgical services, academic advancement, research and teaching programs, as well as become the key physician executive liaison between CHOC and UCI.

“Dr. Cunningham’s broad medical experience, advanced research expertise and extraordinary leadership capabilities in the field of children’s health will be transformative to Orange County and the communities that CHOC and UCI serve,” said CHOC’s President and CEO Kimberley Chavalas Cripe. “Combining the clinical, research and academic expertise of UCI and CHOC will not only advance the pediatric care of children in the region, but also advance the education and training of the next generation of pediatric experts through a fully integrated program that leverages a top tier children’s health system with a top tier academic health system.”

Balancing the tripartite mission of UCI School of Medicine – Discover. Teach. Heal. – Dr. Cunningham will drive research, educational and clinical excellence, while helping further CHOC’s mission to nurture, advance and protect the health and well-being of children. In her role, she will ensure full integration of research and academic priorities across the continuum of care at both CHOC and UCI’s pediatric programs.

“Dr. Cunningham is a nationally-recognized scholar and forward-thinking leader, with a distinguished record of achievement in research, education and clinical care,” said Michael J. Stamos, MD, dean of the UCI School of Medicine.  “We are confident in her ability to lead our organizations.  Hers is a great story of achievement and we are honored to have her join us.”

Dr. Cunningham joins UCI and CHOC from Duke University where she serves as professor with tenure in the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases and as chief of Global Health and vice chair for research in the Department of Pediatrics.  She was chief of Pediatric Infectious Diseases until 2015 when she stepped down to focus on vice-chair responsibilities. She holds secondary appointments in the Department of Pathology at Duke and the Duke Global Health Institute.

Dr. Cunningham earned her medical degree from the State University of New York Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, NY, where she also did her residency in pediatrics and a fellowship in pediatric infectious diseases.  At SUNY, she served as an associate professor of pediatrics and started a pediatric HIV clinic.

Her work on HIV and AIDS in children has been recognized numerous times, as has her work on H1N1 influenza. Most recently, Dr. Cunningham was awarded the Denny, Katz, Simon, Tingelstad Academic Service Award from the American Academy of Pediatrics.  She also recently received the Translational Research Mentoring Award from Duke University Medical Center and was selected for participation in the Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine (ELAM) program.

Dr. Cunningham has published more than 120 manuscripts and led many multicenter clinical trials aimed at the treatment and prevention of HIV infection in children.  She has obtained several competitive research funding awards and served on National Institutes of Health and other grant reviews.  She has also done extensive work as an educator, teaching students at all levels, from undergraduate to fellows, focusing on training Pediatric Infectious Diseases Physician Scientists.